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One by one, smartly dressed young African-American men emerged from dark curtains, each wearing a big smile and holding aloft a small sign displaying one of the most heartening sentences in the English language: “I got the job!”
By the end of this mid-November day, more than 300 young men had left interviews at Detroit’s Cobo Center with offers from a wide variety of Detroit-area companies, large and small. There were retail jobs, Pepsi delivery jobs, energy company apprenticeships, food industry jobs, bank clerk and teller jobs, all a result of the so-called opportunity summit organized by My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, along with several partners.
The scene in many ways perfectly illustrated both the power and promise of former President Barack Obama’s provocative White House initiative, My Brother’s Keeper. Propelled by the president’s forceful exhortation, My Brother’s Keeper Alliance — the nonprofit agency created to carry out the president’s agenda — had used its influence to draw hundreds of Detroit-area employers to the large convention hall, where they offered jobs to a group that unemployment statistics indicate is not coveted by corporate America: young black and Latino males.
Compared to other groups in the U.S., young black males have higher unemployment, lower graduation rates, less access to health care and higher incarceration rates. According to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, by eighth grade, just 12 percent of black boys and 17 percent of Latino boys were reading at or above proficiency, compared to 38 percent of white boys.
Audio: Listen to author Nick Chiles talk about this story on American Public Media’s Educate podcast
Horace Morgan, 20, quickly surmised when he walked into Detroit’s Cobo Center that this wasn’t like other job fairs he’d attended, and he was right: He got five job offers. Morgan now works for Michigan Works! Association, which aims to connect employers with job seekers.
“As soon as I saw the faces of the guys there, I knew something was different,” said Morgan, who had to drop out of college last year because he couldn’t scrape money together for tuition. “Everyone had a smile and looked like they were having a pleasurable experience. So I went in and gave it a chance. It was really uplifting. I saw a couple of guys crying because they never thought they’d have an opportunity to get a job.”
Related: At Georgia State, more black students graduate each year than at any U.S. College
Will President Trump stall momentum?
Since Obama announced My Brother’s Keeper (MBK) in February 2014, his engagement has led to an unprecedented surge in corporate, nonprofit and philanthropic support for this troubled population. In December, the White House described commitments of more than $1 billion from the private sector, calling the progress “remarkable.”
MBK initiatives have been started in nearly 250 communities in all 50 states, along with nearly two dozen federal agencies and departments. Cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Compton and Detroit have started or expanded pre-existing programs. A range of foundations have committed millions of dollars for MBK’s six areas of focus: preschool education; reading proficiency by third grade; high school graduation; college attendance or career training; jobs; and reducing violence and helping ex-felons re-enter society.
But as President Donald Trump takes over, leaders in the movement worry about his administration’s impact on the momentum they’ve created — and they hope Obama will remain involved.
“There is no person maybe in the world who has a higher ethical and moral standing in this arena — the arena of open society, democracy, fairness and equity — than President Obama,” said Geoffrey Canada, a highly regarded expert on improving the lives of black boys and the founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, one of the most successful and closely watched urban programs in the country.
Canada said Obama can’t allow MBK to become a program that galvanized a great deal of attention and money — then fizzled away. “We better start seeing results,” he said.
Other leaders are impressed by the fundraising, but wonder if Obama’s movement can reverse the dismal statistics attached to young black males.
“It’s a fair question and the right question — one I ask myself every day,” said Blair Taylor, who became CEO of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance in April. “My short answer is, ‘Yes.’ My extended answer is, ‘We’ve got a lot of work to do.’ ”
Taylor believes Obama’s initiative has prompted communities around the country to mobilize around the task of improving outcomes for boys and men of color, and notes that some young men have seen their lives changed at events like the job summit in Detroit in November, along with a similar summit held last July in Oakland.
Jason Board, a 19-year-old student at Macomb Community College outside of Detroit, is one of them. He needed a job after walking away from one in concessions at Comerica Park during the Detroit Tigers baseball season. He quit after a white manager told him to tuck in his shirt, saying this wasn’t his “hood” or “a music video.”
“I didn’t want to suck it up because I felt like he would have won, he would have got what he wanted,” said Board, who was pleasantly surprised by encouragement from employers he met at the Detroit job summit. “It was like they had an understanding of your background, so they weren’t judging you on what you’ve done in the past. It was more about your work ethic, what you could do in the future.”
Related: Two years after Obama’s college graduation initiative, major obstacles remain
‘Jury is still out’
It’s still early for My Brother’s Keeper, and so far there is no independent analysis of what specifically has been accomplished. Taylor said he is encouraged by the impact it is having, but daunted by the size of the challenge.
“Put that impact in the context of how big the issue is and how systemic the issue is and how much work there is to do ahead — a couple years into it the My Brother’s Keeper effort looks like we’re making progress,” said Taylor, previously chief community officer for Starbucks and president of the Starbucks Foundation. “But I don’t think anybody out there two years in would be waving a flag of victory. We’re nowhere near that.”
For an initiative with such ambitious goals, leaders know the next five years are crucial. If MBK is going to be a major and relevant force for change, they say change needs to start happening now.
“And we better be clear enough about what we’re trying to do that we can measure whether it’s working,” Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone added.
Shawn Dove, executive director of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, has been working with various organizations on the problems facing black boys for more than two decades — most of his adult life. He said, “I think the challenge for all of us is having a place we can point to and say in the next five years, ‘This is what winning looks like.’ He [Obama] has widened the tent to include entities like the private sector that never focused on this issue. My Brother’s Keeper has given a level of hope and sustainability in this area that in my lifetime hasn’t been there.”
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Yet Dove also sounded a cautionary note. “There’s been a lot of activity, as you know, but right now we’re not winning. There’re some pockets of promise, but on a major scale the jury is still out around this work.”
Black males remain on the bottom
For example, a 2015 analysis by the Schott Foundation for Public Education found that in 35 of the 48 states where data was collected, and in the District of Columbia, “black males remain at the bottom of four-year high school graduation rates. (Latino males were at the bottom in 13 states.)”
Phillip Jackson, executive director of the Black Star Project, a Chicago nonprofit that has been working in the black community for the past 20 years, is skeptical about MBK’s prospects. He’s seen elaborate White House reports on My Brother’s Keeper and heard Obama’s speeches, but not enough evidence that the program has changed the lives of black boys.
“I don’t buy the glitz; I don’t buy changing the world by press release,” said Jackson, former CEO of the Chicago Housing Authority and chief of staff for Chicago Public Schools. “The young men in Chicago who need My Brother’s Keeper the most have never heard of it. So when you say My Brother’s Keeper started these programs, that’s great. But the young men shooting and killing each other at alarming levels here have never heard of it.”
Chicago saw a 54 percent increase in homicides in 2016 over the previous year (from 496 to 762) and a 47 percent increase in shooting victims (from 2,939 to 4,331). That means that Chicago last year had more murders than the two largest American cities, New York and Los Angeles, combined.
Jackson said he was disturbed that, in Chicago, nonprofits that previously had shown no interest in the plight of black boys stepped into the arena to get their hands on My Brother’s Keeper money — crowding out smaller groups that had been doing the work for years.
“Here in Chicago, there are numerous nonprofits that serviced black men and boys who now no longer exist,” Jackson said, noting that many simply ran out of money. “They’re gone. Black men and boys are in just as bad and possibly worse condition as they were in before My Brother’s Keeper … It’s wonderful to have program brochures and reports, but until I see an infrastructure in place that’s reaching the people who need it most, then it’s a failed program.”
Who will lead?
Moving forward, the leaders of the MBK movement worry that President Trump’s priorities are unlikely to include uplifting black boys. Trump has never publicly spoken about MBK and his administration has not responded to requests to get his views about the program.
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After Trump’s election, MBK leaders said, the tenor of their internal meetings suddenly changed — they went from plotting out optimistic blueprints for the future to nervous discussions about how to protect gains and survive the next four years.
“Last year we were discussing whether we were doing too much at the national level and not enough at the local. It was a conversation we were having in the land of plenty,” said Tonya Allen, CEO of the Skillman Foundation, a 56-year-old Detroit-based nonprofit, and board chair of the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. “None of us expected we would soon be living in the land of famine. Now the conversation has shifted to, ‘How do we shore up these national organizations so we can sustain the ground we’ve gotten in the last few years?’ ”
Taylor said even if Trump scraps everything Obama started, he hopes the new president will replace it with something else to help the population of young black males.
Broderick Johnson, who ran the MBK initiative inside the White House for Obama, recently said he has confidence MBK will continue, noting that it has “really been embraced by Republican mayors and business leaders and others.”
Will Obama stay involved?
Another unknown: Will the former president continue to be engaged in MBK?
Obama gave some clues last month when he spoke at the final White House gathering of MBK leaders, pledging that he’ll be invested “for the rest of my life.”
“My Brother’s Keeper was not about me; it was not about my presidency,” Obama told the audience. “It’s about all of us working together. Because ensuring that our young people can go as far as their dreams and hard work will take them is the single most important task that we have as a nation. It is the single most important thing we can do for our country’s future.”
He also made it clear that he is aware of the challenges ahead. “We’ve got to make sure that we’re out there showing what works,” Obama said. “We can’t hang onto programs just because they’ve been around a long time. We can’t be protective of programs that have not produced results for young people, even if they’ve produced some jobs for some folks running them. And we have to make sure that we’re casting a wide net so that we’re not just cherry-picking some kids who probably have so much drive they’d make it anyway. We’ve also got to go deep, including in the places like juvenile facilities and our prisons to make sure that some very still-young people are reachable.”
While MBK has not garnered consistent coverage in the mainstream media, it has remained big news in the African-American community — largely because the country’s first black president formulated an official White House policy in response to a specifically black problem.
After the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin prompted an explosion of outrage in the black community, Obama listened when leaders like Shawn Dove came to the White House and presented a compelling case for action. Months later, in February 2014, the president announced the creation of MBK.
Canada, of the Harlem Children’s Zone, said he would like Obama to spend significant time highlighting “best practices” over the next few years. “There are programs out there actually doing solid work in employment, in education, in breaking the cradle-to-prison pipeline,” Canada said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The president can go into cities and rural areas across the country with a tool kit that says, here are things you should be thinking about and focusing on. Then he can ensure the right tools are there with the right resources. Because it’s going to cost money.”
‘We feel seen’
At the My Brother’s Keeper Detroit job summit, older men acted as mentors: they gave the younger generation haircuts, showed them how to tie a necktie and prepped them for interviews. The ride-share app Lyft offered a week of free rides for those who got jobs to sustain them until their first paycheck.
Allen, whose Skillman Foundation helped plan the summit, said she underestimated how much the event would inspire the young men who attended. “If you had asked me earlier whether this was an important thing to do, I would have said it was a good idea but it wasn’t especially important,” said Allen. “But in hindsight I think it was extraordinarily important. What the young men told me was, ‘We feel seen.’ They felt the event was a declarative statement that they were important, they mattered, there were people looking out for them — not on the micro individual level but on the macro community level.”
Obama and other MBK leaders want American corporations to realize how much talent is being missed. Taylor, of My Brother’s Keeper Alliance, calls the 5.4 million young people age 16 to 24 who currently aren’t in school or don’t have a job “missed human potential.”
“That’s the story here,” Taylor said in a phone interview. “When I sat on the other end of the table as the chief community officer for Starbucks, my approach has consistently been that this isn’t about altruism, this is about young people representing an enormous opportunity for America … the way to convince America to engage on this issue in a sustained way in the long term is to show America the missed potential.”
Taylor said employers at the job fair in Detroit were high-fiving young men after their interviews. Recruiters told him it was the best recruiting event they’d ever attended.
“These are recruiters who have recruited for 15 years — can you imagine?” Taylor said. “They were going into a low-income community with young people who are ‘disenfranchised and disconnected’ and walking away saying this is the best event they’ve ever been to. But that’s because in most instances they haven’t seen the human potential and haven’t recruited from that population. That’s what this is all about.”
Jason Board, who now works on the assembly line at Detroit Manufacturing Systems, said the event was a refreshing break for him from employers who gave him the message that he shouldn’t even be applying for a job.
“They’d have this attitude, like, ‘You know you can’t be successful at this; you know this isn’t for you,’ ” he said. “But this time they were telling us, ‘Hey, why don’t you give this a try?’ When it comes to young black males, people shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. I feel like we’re full of talent. People would be surprised by what we can do.”
In his final remarks on MBK, Obama warned that change for young black and brown males may not happen as quickly as many had hoped. “It is as a consequence of neglect over generations that so many of these challenges exist. We shouldn’t expect that we’re going to solve these problems overnight, but we’ve got proof about what happens when you just give folks a little love and you act on that love.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more from Nick Chiles.
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